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Pawel Brodzinski on Software Project Management

Juggling Goals

Juggling Goals post image

The other day I had a great discussion on Twitter with George Dinwiddie on goals conflicting with each other on different levels. It all started with goals changing over time, went through divergent goals between a project team and stakeholders and ended up with clash between short- and long-term goals. Well, actually it ended up when George very wisely prompted me to set the context first and then go back to a discussion.

The subject is rather broad so here is the story to set the focus. There’s Jimmy the Manager who lead a functional team of 7 developers. I chose 7 as it is a sort of magic number in terms of team size. Anyway Jimmy has in his team Jenny the Slacker. Jenny is a generally liked person and they get on very well with Jimmy. Actually they built quite a friendship. Jenny also gets on well with pretty much anyone. The problem is Jenny underperforms. Jimmy the Manager tried everything he could think of to sort the problem out but it seems Jenny is not only the Slacker but also the Impregnable. Nothing changes.

Now, let’s focus on Jimmy’s goals for a moment. On one hand he is a manager and is responsible for making the team perform well. On the other he likes Jenny and also knows how misunderstood any harsh decision against her would be, as she’s kind of liked by everyone.

If Jimmy chooses to wear his manager hat and do the worst managerial task he’ll accomplish goals set by his superiors: eventually team performance will improve. At the same time he will probably ruin the relationship they have and also receive plenty of flak from colleagues wondering how the heck such a nice person as Jenny was fired. It is likely that even his own team won’t fully understand the decision.

Jimmy can also play a nice guy role. It means sacrificing team performance, and one of his goals, but also avoiding very difficult decision and its unpleasant consequences. It means preserving many of other workplace relationships as well. For any manager, and a normal person, these should be important goals too.

Now, to avoid leaving the subject without any call for action, a few questions. What would you do if you were Jimmy the Manager? Why? Which goals you consider more important? What exactly makes you following one path and not the other?

Note: I do consider that all “let’s fix the situation and achieve both sets of goals” options have been executed and it hasn’t worked. You are on the crossroads – you have to choose.

in: team management

12 comments… add one

  • MC September 5, 2011, 1:43 pm

    Its not easy – but at that point you’ve got to realise if you don’t do anything about the under performance, that you yourself are not performing. Morally, I would find it hard to put that sort of stress on an expectant mother. Luckily for me – in my jurisdiction; Jenny is pretty much untouchable due to the expectant baby from an HR perspective.

    But once Jenny is back (assuming they come back), you’re back to the worst managerial task assuming that all your options have been executed.

  • Nikolay Sturm September 5, 2011, 11:40 pm

    First, i would consider two questions:
    – does Jenny’s underperformance result in bad consequences for anyone?
    – does Jenny do anything else like team bonding, that makes her valuable, although i might not see this value atm?

    From my experience, real underperformers cause trouble for their coworkers. I’d expect them to only carry that weight, if they see any value in Jenny besides being a nice person.

    If the situation really demands action after asking these questions, i would invite Jenny to a 1-on-1, present the facts and ask her under what circumstances we could terminate her contract. In Germany it is very hard to fire underperformers, so terminating the contract in mutual agreement is basically the only way and worked surprisingly good the one time i had to use it.

  • Pawel Brodzinski September 6, 2011, 12:28 am

    @MC – You bring another perspective to the situation. In such case I believe firing a person would be out of question in most countries.

  • Pawel Brodzinski September 6, 2011, 12:40 am

    @Nikolay – At first I wanted to answer your first question like this: “Isn’t it obvious? If one of team members does less the rest of the team does more.” However, after a second thought I don’t think it is true in each and every situation.

    Actually it’s not that uncommon to see teams which aren’t kept accountable for achieving their results which means there are possibly no consequences whatsoever for a slacker.

    Anyway, considering that slacking Jenny doesn’t hurt the rest of the team much but she also doesn’t do anything special in terms of team building, etc. any harsh decision against her will still be received very negatively by the most of the team most of the time.

    Note: I put aside formal constrains connected with a specific country although I don’t envy you the situation. I actually law in this area is kind of crazy in Poland but then I learned how it looks like in Germany. Sometimes I’m surprised how such a strong economy can thrive with such law.

  • Maciej Łebkowski September 6, 2011, 1:17 am

    I suppose you’d have some kind of mission statement. Values you embrace in your company. You could be, for instance, a high performance team in the first place. All about optimizing, best people, etc. In that case, you should sacrifice good relations in favor of performance.
    On the other hand, you could have stated that people go first. You don’t have to have 100% performance. We’re all people after all. So it doesn’t matter that Jenny performs at 75%, as long as she brings something else to the company. Something that cannot be measured.

    I think every problem is easier when viewed from a higher plane. Declare your values and stick to them.

  • Pawel Brodzinski September 6, 2011, 2:16 am

    @Maciej – It kind of sounds nice but I don’t see it work in real life. I mean declare your company values which are supposed to be something universal for 50/250/1000/2500 people (depending on the size of the company) and then ask yourself what kind of values you’re going to end up with. Probably something pretty generic aiming at as many people as possible.

    Now, try to apply them to you small little group of 7 which, in comparison, is so darn specific that you can hardly draw a simple connection. Imagine plethora of situations when your team’s goals are totally opposite to company’s goals.

    Take performance for example. Given that high performance is of of the company goals and you have a slacker in your team would you still get rid of her considering your team is one of top-performing teams in the whole organization? Does it change your perspective?

    Btw: I kind of answered the question about company’s values in the post. I mean your bosses expect you will sort the problem with the slacker out, meaning high performance is one of valued goals of the company.

  • Piotr Leszczyński September 6, 2011, 5:23 am

    I wouldn’t say it has anything to do with your values. I disagree that you should keep underperfomers when you value people most. I would rather say the opposite. If you care about people in your team, and by saying that I mean caring about their payment, bonuses, appreciation for the work done, you should fire underperformers.

    I still can’t understand why should we value a worker who is a great guy, but a poor employee. Why shouldn’t we seek a worker who is a great guy and great employee too.

  • Linda Schmandt September 6, 2011, 6:42 am


    First, a question: Is Jenny pregnant, or is she “impregnable” (i.e. you can’t break her slacker-ness no matter what you do)? Even in the U.S., it’s really hard to fire a woman who’s pregnant.

    You’ve gone through the phases of coaching, micro-managing, warning, performance improvement programs and everything else both good managers and the HR dept. say you should do. I assume that includes telling her that if her performance doesn’t improve she’ll be fired. She still hasn’t changed. You have to fire her. When she’s gone you need to talk to the team about it. You can’t say, “It was disrespectful to all your hard work to keep someone on the team who wasn’t producing,” because they don’t care — they like her anyway and were willing to carry her. At least a couple of them, though, may realize that you’re right and appreciate it. Even if they don’t, you have to do it. I would probably say something to the team like, “I know you all really like Jenny, and I really like her, too, but she wasn’t doing a good job. She couldn’t or wouldn’t change that situation with me, so I had to fire her. The rest of you are all doing a great job, a fantastic job, and you have nothing to worry about.”

  • Pawel Brodzinski September 6, 2011, 7:20 am

    @Linda – I meant impregnable. Sorry for work confusion. Fixed it. Thanks.

    Regarding the situation, let’s assume you can safely consider that the team will misinterpret your intentions and they will assume there has been some hidden agenda. Do you still go that way with no doubt?

    Note: I’m neither Jimmy nor Jenny in this story, just a passer-by.

  • MC September 6, 2011, 11:30 am

    Sorry for my contribution to the confusion!

  • Brice October 14, 2011, 8:16 am

    What about talking with Jenny? Take between one and two hour of your time, get some privacy, turn off your phone, and speak to her openly and honestly about how you feel. Explain to her that her performance isn’t meeting the standard of the company, and see if she can suggest a way forward.

    People, as a rule, *want* to do well. More than likely, Jenny is bored (http://www.randsinrepose.com/archives/2011/07/12/bored_people_quit.html) or doesn’t feel she fits in. Instead of trying to understand the problem outside of both Jenny and Jimmy, it sounds very much like you’re trying to put the low performance completely at Jenny’s feet, and blame her for it.

    If instead of thinking “she’s a problem” you start saying “Jenny, I feel you’re not performing at your best. How can I help?” you’ve probably won half the battle.

    Have you also considered that because Jenny is so well liked and nice, *she gets interrupted more*. If people are always talking to her because they like her, then her productivity will suffer. The problem may very well be everybody else, rather than poor Jenny, who’s too nice to tell people to f-off when they come and interrupt…

    There’s an excellent talk by Hamming (Yes… That ‘Hamming’) entitled “you and your research” (http://www.cs.virginia.edu/~robins/YouAndYourResearch.html) that describes the phenomenon of (short term productivity gains) vs (long term gains) between people who are willing to be interrupted and those who are not.

  • Pawel Brodzinski October 15, 2011, 10:50 am

    @Brice – “Note: I do consider that all “let’s fix the situation and achieve both sets of goals” options have been executed and it hasn’t worked.”

    I’m no different than others and I do prefer such situations in a way that satisfies both sides. However, as I stated in a problem: you came to crossroads, you have to choose.

    Of course we can dig deeper till the end of the world looking for externals factors which brought Jenny to the place. If it helps you consider you can’t change these external factors. It’s just you and Jenny. And your decision.

    You pointed Rands’ article. Actually if Jenny is bored and quits it’s a win-win. She gets new motivation and solves Jimmy’s problem. But the problem is she doesn’t plan to leave. The ball is on the other side of the court. Yours.

    So again, how do you act?

    BTW: I’m not on any side of this story. I’m just a passer by. I can imagine me making both decisions. And I’m definitely don’t think “she’s a problem.” We have a problem here, but I didn’t make my call before I wrote the post. It’s you who decide.

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